As a late spring vacation, I decided to catch a plane and head on down to Okinawa – a group of islands in the south part of Japan. The islands of Okinawa are famous for its subtropical climate – and is often referred to as ‘the poor man’s Hawaii’. But don’t let that perturb you, Okinawa is a fantastic getaway spot with plenty of sea-side activities to enjoy.
Historically, the Okinawan Islands were a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom – an independent kingdom that ruled the region until the area officially became a part of Japan in 1879. Therefore, while Okinawa is officially a part of Japan now, it’s history and culture are often viewed as separate – being heavily influenced by both Japanese and Chinese cultures.
In the modern day, Okinawa Prefecture has become a fantastic holiday spot – with historical sightseeing places in the capital city of Naha, as well as snorkeling and scuba-diving on the smaller islands. And if none of those things tickle your fancy, then you can always enjoy the cool ocean breeze as you sip on a glass of Orion – Okinawa’s original beer.
So, for those of you wondering what to do if you’re down in the south islands, then check out this list of the best things to do in Okinawa!
For my trip, I spent most of my time in the capital city of Naha. Truthfully, this city is nothing special – it’s much like any other city in Japan. However, there are still some sights that are definitely worth seeing and on my first day in this humid city, I made my way to the most famous building in Naha:
Shurijō (首里城) is a large vermilion-coloured castle in the heart of the historical Shuri district. The castle grounds cover a vast area where visitors can follow the ancient stone roads to the Seiden (the main hall), which is perched at the top of a hill overlooking the whole of Naha.
The castle itself once acted as the administrative and residential center of the Ryukyu Kingdom – before officially becoming a part of Japan in the late 1800s. Although the castle was originally built in the 1300s, a series of fires and destruction have caused the castle to be rebuilt numerous times – most recently during the Battle of Okinawa in WWII. Since then, this famous castle has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you’re interested in history and ancient buildings, then I recommend following the winding paths in the castle grounds before visiting the Seiden. Taking a tour of the main hall is definitely worthwhile (only 300 yen) and you get a great sense of how the powerful lived during the Ryukyu Kingdom. In fact, there is a gorgeous little tea-house in the heart of the castle where you can enjoy local Okinawan tea and treats, all the while learning about how the very same tea-house was used to entertain powerful guests from other cities and countries.
Located near Shuri Castle, this ancient stone path is a definite must-see. Not only because it connects Shuri Castle with other local sightseeing spots, but because the 300 meter path itself will transport you back to the 16th century.
For my visit, I walked this path at dusk – a less crowded time when local cats come out to play. Indeed, I had more fun playing with the cats than soaking up the ancient feel of the stone paths. But if you love exploring then this place is definitely for you – just be careful in the rain, the limestone gets very slippery!
Fukushu-en (福州園) is a traditional Chinese garden that is located near Naha Beach. Although the garden was built in 1992 to celebrate the links between Okinawa and China, the designers of this space attempted to be as authentic as possible. With water features, ponds, fish and turtles, Fukushu-en is a very relaxing and calming sightseeing spot.
For some reason there are a ton of cats in Okinawa – many of which roam the streets while their masters are away. So, if you’re into cats, then you can spend a lovely afternoon trying to stalk and capture the cats on camera – much like I did:
While sightseeing is not everyone’s cup of tea, there is still plenty to do on the tropical islands of Okinawa. Here are just a couple that I managed to actually do:
Not wanting to spend all of my time in Naha, I took the opportunity on my second day to travel to Cape Maeda – where plenty of fun activities are available. However, I had the misfortune of going on a particularly rainy day, which meant that such places as Forest Adventure and Bios Hill were off the table.
Luckily, the main attraction of Cape Maeda – The Blue Cave – was a still a viable option. This is because The Blue Cave is an excellent snorkeling and scuba diving spot – in other words, a place where you don’t have to worry about getting wet from the rain.
Because I was a bit wary of scuba-diving, I decided to go snorkeling at this local cave. And after taking a short boat ride, I was able to snorkel into the cave where a dazzling blue light is visible – along with a multitude of brightly colored tropical fishies. In fact, although it was raining, I was actually able to see more fishes than usual as the swell of the warm ocean brought them forth.
There are many companies that offer tours to The Blue Cave – both for snorkeling and scuba diving – so it can be a little bit daunting finding the right place. Personally, I recommend Pink Mermaid as they are really friendly and offer a wide variety of activities – all of which can be booked the day before.
If you’re more interested in chilling on the beach, or participating in some water sports, then I highly recommend taking a short ferry ride from Naha to Tokashiki Island (渡嘉敷村). Not only is this a great way to get away from ‘the big city’, but it’s also a stunningly quiet and serene island.
On my third day in Okinawa, the clouds had thankfully parted and allowed some strong sun rays to peak through. So in order to take advantage of the situation, I traveled to this tiny island where I was able to find a nice quiet beach and take part in many water sports – including snorkeling and swimming in the bluest and clearest water you ever did see!
It’s relatively easy to book a ferry ride to Tokashiki Island from Tomari Port, and once you’re there, you’re free to explore the island as much as you like. However, I recommend organizing a day trip package before going to the island – this way you can enjoy many types of island activities without having to worry about transport or finding rental shops, etc.
Personally, I suggest Marine House Aharen. Not only do they provide transport to a lovely beach with bright blue water, but they also offer many activities and water sports – all for a reasonable price. In fact, if you’re keen on staying on an island like Tokashiki, then Marine House Aharen also offers accommodation.
Food, Drink and Shopping
This street in central Naha is famous for its shops and restaurants. It’s a great place to wonder up and down in order to find the perfect souvenirs for your friends and relatives at home. All the stores along this strip are practically bursting with local items and delicacies – so make sure you set aside a few hours to explore this area.
And once you’re done ‘shopping til you drop’, then you can relax at one of the many local restaurants and enjoy some delicious local meals. And speaking of which…
There are many types of local Okinawan food that you can enjoy in and around Naha. Personally, I recommend trying the spicy Okinawan soba noodles, as well as the local goat sashimi (raw goat) – both of which are mouth-wateringly delicious.
And to wash down this delicious food, you can always be adventurous and try habushu (snake wine) – the alcohol that’s famous for submerging large pit viper snakes in its bottles. Or you could stay tame and stick to Okinawa’s local beer, Orion.
If you’re feeling the heat of the humid Okinawa summer, then you should definitely cool down with some Blue Seal Ice-Cream – a delicious product that was “born in America and raised in Okinawa”. There are plenty of local flavors to try and you can find Blue Seal Ice-Cream stores on many of the islands around Okinawa and Southern Japan – so keep your eye out!
What Not To Do
Of course, just like any other city or town, there are some places and activities that you should definitely avoid, and Naha is no different:
One of the biggest disappointments in Naha is definitely Naminoue Beach. From pictures, I was expecting an idyllic beach with a view of the lovely deep blue ocean. But unfortunately, I was met with a great view of a concrete highway – not exactly something you want to see on an island getaway vacation!
However, if your flight is early in the afternoon, then this is a great spot to get in one last swim before departing Okinawa – so it is completely up to you.
Overall, Okinawa is a great place to visit. And although some people might think it’s a bit ‘touristy’, it’s still a great place for a tropical getaway.